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A Boy Among Gravestones
Posted on July 4, 2012 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)
Here be spoilers.
If a story about an orphaned boy, the soul survivor of a mass murder, being raised by the residents of a haunted graveyard sounds ghoulish, well, it is. But would you also believe it's charming?
Appropriately called The Graveyard Book, this 2008 novel is by English author Neil Gaiman who's best known for his macabre masterpiece, Coraline (2002). The Graveyard Book was his first full length novel after Coraline and it shares some of the same grim themes.
The story begins on the night of the murder when the young protagonist manages to free himself from his crib and wander out into the night just as a shadowy killer called "the man Jack" is doing in his mother, father and older sister. The tot ends up at the gates of the cemetery at the top of the hill, where the ghostly residents gather to debate his fate. When "the man Jack" shows up a few minutes later, it becomes all too obvious the child is alone and utterly vulnerable. The ghosts agree to protect him. A childless couple volunteer to act as his parents; and they appoint Silas – who may or may not be a vampire – to be his guardian as he can leave the cemetery and bring back food and other supplies for the boy. They name the toddler Nobody – "Bod" for short – and the graveyard becomes his permanent home.
In many ways, the cemetery is the book's central character. Lavishly detailed by Gaiman, the reader comes to know every nook and cranny of the place, and appreciate it not just as a domicile for spooks, but as a refuge for the living. Bestowed with "the freedom of the graveyard," Bod is able to move about its confines safely, interacting with both the dead and the various types of wildlife which inhabit its wooded hills.
Life here is idyllic in many ways. Bod forms friendly, even loving attachments to many of the spirits who share his sprawling backyard, some of whom date back to England's prehistory. They play with him, teach him, occasionally fight with him. But it's never quite the same as having living, breathing people around. So Bod is particularly excited when he befriends a girl named Scarlett who lives in the nearby village and comes to the graveyard to play. Scarlett's parents are convinced their daughter's friend is a harmless figment of her imagination, but this changes when Bod takes her to see the most unique feature of the cemetery: an ancient Celtic crypt. The crypt was never used by the chieftain for whom it was built, but that doesn't mean the space is unoccupied. A serpent-like creature who calls itself "The Sleer" guards the place and does its best to terrify the two children. After Scarlett describes her adventure to her parents, she's not allowed to return to the cemetery and soon moves away.
His brief friendship with Scarlett makes Bod long even more to explore the outside world. But Silas is quick to remind him "the man Jack" who killed his parents is still at large and still hunting him. To help protect him against this lingering threat, the graveyard residents instruct Bod in a variety of supernatural skills. He learns how to manifest himself in other people's dreams, slip in and out of the shadows and vanish from sight the instant someone's attention is turned. Eventually, he's allowed to attend the local school, but when he uses these special powers to intimidate some bullies, his academic career is cut short.
The book culminates with "the man Jack's" elaborate attempt to draw the now teenaged Bod out of the graveyard, using Scarlett as bait. But details behind why "the man Jack" is so interested in the youth may be The Graveyard Book's weakest point. When the final reveal comes, it's like a whodunnit novel where vital clues were withheld from the reader. I enjoyed the ambiguous nature of "the man Jack" and the murderous fraternal order to which he belongs, but I wanted to understand why he was particularly interested in Bod. In the end, the explanation seemed vague and the book's central mystery wasn't as satisfying as many of its sub-plots.
Regardless, The Graveyard Book is a compelling, often touching novel with themes and characters young adults will gobble up. Gaiman is particularly adept at constructing compelling dialogue and historical dialects. In fact, if I can bestow a high compliment, he's the best I've found at this since I read Robert Louis Stevenson as a teenager.
The Graveyard Book won numerous awards – including a Hugo, Newbery, and Carnegie Medal – and deserved every one of them. It's the first title I've read by Gaiman. It won't be the last.